Friday, October 21, 2011

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

This is a strange, “I’m halfway through a book and sort of feel like talking about it,” post, which is vague, because a) I’m only halfway through right now and I’m not a fan of saying, “Well, I think this might happen” or “This is what I like so far” because either of those things can change drastically in the second half of the novel and then here it is, all written down like a preemptive review of a full book even though it’s only half read and b) It’s part of a series, and I find those books difficult to write about, the ones that have something that comes before and something that comes after, only the book I’m dealing with comes somewhere in the middle. It carries a lot of baggage and SPOILERS and approximation.

It’s A Feast for Crows in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I really like this one. By far? It’s my favorite. But the thing is, I was dreading reading it. I was getting through A Game of Thrones and then A Clash of Kings and onto A Storm of Swords, and all the while, the fourth book was lurking in the background under a deluge of bad Amazon reviews and less-than-three-star ratings.

Reading A Feast for Crows reviews on Amazon put a small spotlight on the way my reading habits have evolved. When I was younger, I’d go into a bookstore and pick out a book. I’d maybe read the book jacket or the synopsis on the back, and sometimes I’d just look at the cover or the author or read a couple of pages and pick it that way. There were no book reviews online, or in a newspaper. Any recommendations came from in the store, or were passed hand-to-hand. They didn’t show up on Amazon as a “well, if you like this then you’re bound to like this because of a small logarithm or something similar that examines book sales and chooses the next best thing.” I would go in with no expectations. That’s how I came across A Game of Thrones. I watched the television show on HBO without knowing anything about it. Everything in the plot was a surprise. I was generally shocked by some of the things that happened, because I didn’t see them coming. And that was a really nice feeling.

But now I really rely on reviews. Partly, I think that’s come from undergrad and grad school English programs: “Here are the books that are good, take our word for it, etc. etc.” I stopped picking out books at random from the bookstore. I started looking for the things that people said were good or ranked as NUMBER ONE or showed up reviewed and rated.

So something kind of funny happened with A Feast for Crows. I read A LOT of bad reviews that said it was different than the rest of the books in the series, that it wasn’t as good as the others: if the books in the series were ranked, it came in last place, every time. And I started this slow dread of getting to the book. I read the first three more slowly. I bought four books and read them after finishing A Storm of Swords, and thought, “Okay, I’ll read all of these first and take a break from the series and then maybe I’ll be ready for the fourth book.” And so I did just that. I read the last four books reviewed on this blog: The 10 p.m. Question, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I Shall Wear Midnight, and The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. And then I went to the bookstore and picked up A Feast for Crows.

And I loved it. Halfway in, I really can’t stop reading. You see, the books in A Song of Ice and Fire are told through a series of repeating viewpoints. Martin’s characters cycle through several perspectives that tackle the events taking place in the novel. There are a couple that I come across and I’m like, “Okay. Next. Moving on.” And then there are others where I want to stay with the character for the entire book, a kind of, “Swap all the perspectives for one. This one.” With A Feast for Crows, I love all of the character viewpoints. More than half of them are from female characters, and I think that makes a huge difference. Women in fantasy, and particularly women in a medieval fantasy series, have always interested me, particularly because of their ability to sort of subvert historical understandings of the same period. But this is the quickest I’ve read one of the books in the series, and I can’t really stop.

So, I’m going to get through. And then I think I’m going to go all “BUY THE HARDCOVER” and get A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the series that just came out in July. And I’m already doing the same thing to that one that I did with A Feast for Crows: I’m reading the reviews, and I’m judging it by the character perspectives that I already know will be in there. IT IS SUCH A HORRIBLE HABIT TO GET INTO. But maybe it will have the reverse effect again. I’ll think, “Hmm, maybe this won’t be that great,” and then it will be the best thing ever. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos

My experience with Jack Gantos has been through two mediums: his Joey Pigza books and his memoir, Hole in My Life. So, to say the least, Gantos’ The Love Curse of the Rumbaugh’s was a little bit of a departure from the humor of Joey Pigza and the biography/realism of Hole in My Life. Love Curse dives right into the gothic, crafting a narrative that spans several generations and uses an inherited curse as a way of tracing through story and experience.

The Rumbaugh curse manifests as an obsessive and compulsive love for a mother by her child. The first time the reader sees how this curse plays out is in the introduction of the Rumbaugh twins, Abner and Adolph, proprietors of the local pharmacy. When young protagonist Ivy discovers the twins’ deceased mother in the basement of the pharmacy, she realizes that the twins’ penchant for taxidermy has extended to preserving their mother, even after her death. The discovery ignites Ivy’s own manifestation of the Rumbaugh curse. She begins to view her mother as a fragile and temporary person in her life. She worries incessantly about the impending death of her own mother, and begins to prepare for the actuality of losing her. She contacts the Rumbaugh twins and becomes a student of their taxidermy. She starts by practicing on one of her dolls, following the instructions from Taxidermy for Fun and Profit, a book that she takes out of the library. When her first attempt at taxidermy is found in another room in the Kelly Hotel (where Ivy lives with her mother), her mother suspects that the curse has been passed on to her daughter. Although she tries to dissuade Ivy from continuing along this route, there is a resignation to Ivy’s mother that seems to insist that the Rumbaugh curse is unavoidable. Ivy is destined towards the same compulsion.

The idea of the curse passing on unavoidably from generation to generation sets up a nature/nurture debate in the novel, which Ivy is constantly arguing about with the Rumbaugh twins. For a short period of time, Ivy believes that by changing her environment – by leaving the small town she lives in, the Kelly Hotel, and the Rumbaugh pharmacy – she can avoid the curse. The Rumbaughs, however, believe that the curse runs through blood and that there is nothing Ivy can do to change her situation. The curse is a destiny. It is predetermined. This debate runs through the novel, as does a discussion of free will and the ability to have choice in how an individual future unfolds.

Ivy eventually accepts her part in the curse. When she turns sixteen years old, her mother divulges the secret of Ivy’s blood connection to the Rumbaugh twins, and Ivy understands that the curse is a part of her. She practices taxidermy on small animals, entering contests where she creates whimsical displays that re-enact scenes out of fairy tales. The Rumbaugh twins recognize her as one of them and encourage her talent and propensity towards taxidermy. Ivy realizes she is practicing and preparing for her eventual use of taxidermy on her own mother, who she wishes to keep near her even after her inevitable death.

The focus on taxidermy adds an incredible gothic feeling to the novel, which in turn gives the story a timelessness. Ivy’s narration is first person, and it allows the reader to get right inside her head and encounter the curse firsthand. She becomes a likeable and charming narrator, even though the story she communicates is anything but that.

A few more things that I loved about this book:

1. This quote: “I was still too young to understand that most lies were not about stealing or fighting or cheating but were just ways by which a person shrinks their whole world down to a size they can keep protected in the palm of one hand.”

2. The book Goodnight Moon makes a brief appearance, as do the lines, “with the kittens and mittens and bowl of mush.” I love seeing references to more recent books for children and young adults in novels, instead of having most of the references be to the classics (which is great, but it’s also really nice to be able to connect to contemporary books that appear in contemporary books and to be able to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve read that! Recently!”).

3. The timelessness of the novel. The aspects of the gothic call on a nostalgia that seems to suggest that the novel is set in a time period much less recent than it actually is. I had to keep reminding myself that the novel is set closer to the present. The continuous flashbacks and references to the Rumbaugh ancestors allows for the time leaping; passing on historical family stories adds to the insistence that the past repeats through narrative. For example, one story that is communicated is of an early Rumbaugh ancestor who, during the Civil War, ensured that families would collect insurance money once their family members were killed in battle. However, because it was difficult to find and collect the bodies, the Rumbaugh ancestor would use surgery and taxidermy to reconstruct a body for a head, which could be used to identify the individual for insurance purposes. The book is inflated by the gothic, and going back in time to an era like the Civil War, when the American gothic novel was fully in effect, draws the contemporary into that same feeling of the past. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

I get really excited when a new Terry Pratchett book comes out. I’ve been reading them for years and have them all stacked up on a bookshelf, basically taking up more room than books by any other author (you know, except for maybe Neil Gaiman). Pratchett’s books are a mix of sci-fi and fantasy, and take place in the Discworld. The way this world looks is kind of ridiculously neat. The Discworld is a giant flat world that balances on the backs of four giant elephants that in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle who swims endlessly through space. The books parody a lot of high fantasy while also satirizing politics, art, culture, and society in general. The technology of the Discworld actually evolves from the first book to the most recent, the progression of which is fun to follow throughout. Pratchett has written around forty books in this series (the newest one, Snuff, was just released).

So, it is very exciting when a new book comes out, although it also makes for a little bit of dilemma. Every Terry Pratchett book I have so far is in a nice little pop fiction/grocery store/gas station/paperbook size. Which means I usually don’t buy his new books in hardcover. I wait until they’re in paperback so they can all be nice and also aesthetically pleasing when they are on a small shelf together.

Which is why it is only now that I’m reading I Shall Wear Midnight, a Discworld book published last year that only recently came out in paperback. The novel is aimed at young adults and is the fourth for this age group (fifth if you count The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents). They follow Tiffany Aching, a young witch who lives in the Chalk in the Discworld. There are four novels so far that follow Tiffany, and each is inserted within the larger compendium of Discworld novels.

I sat down and started the book in the morning and finished it in the afternoon. I sort of feel like that is kind of a thing with Discworld books, but this one especially so. The book follows Tiffany as she comes to terms with the repercussions of a very large act of magic that she did in the previous book, which awoke a new enemy that invades her small, everyday world. In the midst of the fantasy, Pratchett has a great sense of the small moments that make up teenage experience. He pays particular attention to Tiffany’s friendship with the Baron’s son, Roland, and the breakdown and distancing that occurs between them. Tiffany’s position in her community is also very carefully detailed – she is at once necessary to the community because she is a witch, but because she is their witch, she can never quite fit in. It is a nice commentary on young adult experience.

The Discworld series in general is one that I follow and get excited about and can’t wait to pick up the next book for. And with this one, I’m a little bit sad I didn’t just go ahead and get the hardcover when it was out, especially since I ordered it on Amazon instead and ended up with a trade paperback, so, um, that did not work. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children opens with protagonist Jacob Portman, a teenager whose family owns the hundred and fifteen Smart Aid pharmacy/convenience stores in Florida. Mostly, Jacob spends the days working at Smart Aid, or, more accurately, trying to get himself fired, a goal that he admits is impossible because of the fact that one day, he’ll be in charge of all one hundred and fifteen. Jacob seems to spend a lot of time by himself, and the only two people who seem to mean anything to him are his best friend Ricky (more of a hired gun for bullies at school), and his grandfather Abe. Jacob frequently sits with his grandfather to look at old black-and-white photos, ones that Jacob suspects have been doctored to produce their eerie and supernatural subjects. When Jacob finds his grandfather murdered in the woods, and a strange monster lurking in the shadows, he begins to wonder if there is more to the photographs and more to the history of his grandfather than he could ever have guessed. He takes a trip with his father to Wales, where his grandfather lived in a house on an island during WWII, and soon finds himself trying to separate the real from the imagined, memory from truth.

This book reminded me so much of Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens, but I think I would recommend Marbury over Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, even though this one seems to be reviewed and bought more often. Both elicit the same sense of a male protagonist who retreats to a fantasy world, and is hesitant to make the return home again. Instead, both protagonists seem to find a sense of solace away from home, and attempt to make their new home in that fantasy place, even if it is hardly an ideal or utopian existence. Unlike Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children, Smith works hard at world building: Marbury is tactile, vicious, and descriptive. The fantasy employed is well thought out and consistent. This is not quite as evident in Peculiar Children. The fantasy is introduced late, and seems to wobble back and forth between full, high fantasy, and just skirting along the edges of that fantasy/reality line. I’m not saying that it has to be either – the uncertainly of navigating between fantasy and reality sometimes makes for the most affecting books – but it still seems unbalanced throughout. The gothic feel to the beginning of Peculiar Children, particularly characterized by a sense of the uncanny, is undercut by the sudden foray into fantastical explanation for the sense of the gothic. And the gothic as a genre thrives so much on that line between fantasy and reality, and even if there is something to explain all the fantastical away, that sense of the uncanny still remains. I thought that the novel lost a lot of the magic and mystery and uncertainty that initially had me turning the pages doing the “what next?” thing, once fantasy explained away the mystery. And that doesn’t happen often. Usually fantasy brings in this really interesting examination of the world and this underlying sense that there is more than is readily accessible and available. It keeps you, as a reader, wondering. Riggs’ fantasy answered the questions. It solved the mystery before it even got well underway.

Aside from this, Peculiar Children has a lot going for it. I’m always sold on WWII fantasy, and the way Riggs utilizes this time period to explain his fantasy and world building is pretty incredible. For example, Peculiar Children relies on the idea of a time loop that exists for a single day – September 3, 1940 – where a group of children with exceptional abilities have been living together for decades. At the end of each day the loop resets itself, backing up a full twenty-four hours right as German planes fly over the house and bomb it. The sense of time is well-crafted, and Riggs does let fantasy do its “what if?” thing by suggesting that there are several of these time loops that extend throughout time and history, each of them holding a pocket of exceptional individuals, keeping them safe within a single repeating day. All the while, eerie creatures attempt to break through these time loops that have been constructed for the very purpose of keeping them out. Amidst all of that is Jacob, who navigates between the present day and the September 3, 1940 time loop, uncovering the mystery of who his grandfather was and what exactly he was trying to protect himself from all his life.

I think I expected more out of Peculiar Children, especially because of the combination of text and graphics. The collected and found photographs Riggs employs throughout bring his subjects to life, and further blur the line between fiction and reality. The photographs in the book are used to bring life to fictionalized characters; yet, they are also photographs of real people whose image exists next to a fictionalized story. For the photos alone, I would recommend this book, but the story itself seems not to hold up as strongly. Riggs leaves room for a sequel, for an entire series of books, and maybe they will build up out of this initial fantastical structure, and carry it much further than this introductory book allowed for.